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'It is not political': why you need inclusion training


What makes a person who sees an opportunity to behave with kindness and compassion choose not to act that way purely along identity lines?

It’s a compelling question that’s at the heart of most of our contemporary struggles with prejudice and bias. And it’s a question that fascinated Jennifer A Stollman so much it drove her to pursue a PhD in finding an answer to it.

Stollman, Flexability’s Director of Consulting Services, says issues of social justice were at the core of her upbringing and childhood.

“I’ve always been dedicated to justice and equity and inclusion. My biological father was a Holocaust survivor. My family is very active in civil rights and human rights,” she says.

Stollman talks about equity and inclusion (find resources on equity and inclusion here) across the “big eight identities”, which are generally understood to be eight attributes (largely socially constructed) that can affect the way a person is perceived and received by others before they’ve said or done anything to elicit a reaction. These identities are: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion/spirituality, nationality and socioeconomic status.

"A lot of people think this is politicized work, and only one party owns it."

Stollman brings her academic background as a historian and anthropologist to bear when she’s helping clients understand and effectively tackle these issues in the workplace. She says a common misconception is the idea that this kind of work is political.

“A lot of people think this is politicized work, and only one party owns it – that you’re either fully inclusive or absolutely not. What I bring is the history so people understand that this isn’t a political football.

“This is something the United States, and frankly, the globe, has been dealing with since the rise of colonialism and empire. I can show the historical lineage, and help you understand that while you haven’t invented these structures, you can dismantle them.”

This understanding, she says, is fundamental.

“Once you realize why we started organizing people into these arbitrary categories, you realise it’s not essential, it’s actually been crafted for competition for resources.

“You don’t have to have a ‘conversion’ experience to be successful at inclusion and equity. You can, in fact, practice the behaviors and then the mindset can come later. Ideally, it’s easier with the mindset first.

“The science, the history, the sociology and the neuroscience help ground people. These are helpful anchors.”

"There’s often goodwill and a good intention, and also the need to self-protect."

Stollman says the key differentiator in Flexability’s approach to helping companies and organizations become more inclusive and diverse is that it’s not one size fits all.Uniformity and standardization is where diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training often fails, she says.

“We look at the organization through a very intense interview process. What are the pain points? What are the stressors? What do you need? And then we develop something.” You can read more about Flexability's approach to guiding organizations toward being more inclusive and diverse here.

For many organizations, Stollman says, it’s an uncomfortable but thoroughly rewarding journey that is best embarked on with experienced and expert guidance – something that organizations can learn the hard way.

“Something happens and a company decides to act. There’s often goodwill and a good intention, and also the need to self-protect. So they create an organizational statement and then believe that they can teach themselves how to be inclusive; that they can understand how the science of bias or equity or inequity is working.

“There’s a lack of expertise, training and skill. Substandard training can do extensive damage to people who are at risk in these corporations.”

"Change your mind about whether this is going to be scary."

For instance, she says, a clumsy attempt to “check in” with employees who are people of color after an upsetting incident of racism hits the news can backfire and cause more harm than good. Yet choosing to remain silent can be as damaging. So what’s the answer? Stollman says getting expert help and acknowledging that it’s a process is a strong first step.

“If we only approach this as ‘scary’, ‘courageous’ and ‘brave’, nobody wants to do it. I want people and organizations to develop a mindset that this isn’t scary. This is something we want to do because it’s beneficial.

“We’ve moralized it, we’ve made it frightening. In part, it’s because the racists want you to think it’s frightening; they do not want you to engage in inclusion.

“Change your mind about whether this is going to be scary. Go in with an attitude of, ‘I can do this.’ Am I going to learn? Yes. Is it going to be difficult? Yes.

“But it’s no different than any new physical or intellectual or spiritual engagement that we’ve all participated in tens of thousands of times in our lives.”

Get in touch with our team to talk about how to create a diverse, successful and productive workplace in your company or organisation. Or share your stories using the hashtag #MyAbility and tagging @getflexability on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.